A report by Hector Velasco for the Agence France Presse.
From one end of the island to the other, every Cuban can be sure of one thing: Their ration book, or “libreta,” will put at least the basics on their table at dinner time. When President Raul Castro tried several years back to do away with this enduring symbol of both equality and scarcity, he failed.
Next February, Castro, younger brother of the late revolutionary leader Fidel, will step down, and there is little sign that the ration book will go anywhere before he does.
Behind his failed effort was the major challenge facing whoever takes over running the Communist island once he steps down: how to open up the economy without a return to capitalism?
Is the ration book the greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution, or its most inefficient burden? The booklet encapsulates two very different views of the challenges Cuba is facing.
In 1963, Cuba started feeling the pinch from the U.S. sanctions imposed after the revolutionary new regime confiscated U.S. property on the island as part of its sweeping reform program.
As shortages set in, the revolutionary leaders launched a program to supply food to every home on the island: The “libreta” was born.
Since then, every household has received a basic package of food each month for a fraction of its actual market value. The Cuban government spends a billion of dollars every year providing this lifeline to its 11.2 million people.
In 2011, Raul Castro hinted that he wanted to slowly phase out the rationing, pointing to the burden it placed on the state’s coffers. But no concrete step has even been taken.
And with a basic monthly salary set at the equivalent of $29, topping up that simple allowance is tough.
Esther Rodriguez and her husband raise pigs and grow mangoes in El Caney in Cuba’s Oriente mountains. The state buys most of what they produce and in a good year they earn around $125. Esther, 61, has a ration book for four people, but she now only has two mouths to feed since her children have grown up and left home. The ration book “was the best thing they ever did, because everyone gets to eat. If they get rid of it, there’ll be problems.”
Keeping the libreta only for the neediest “would split the country in two again,” she said. “And Cuba is a whole, it’s everyone or no one.”
In Cayo Granma in eastern Cuba, the 1,200 residents who mostly work the fishing industry fulfill their rations from a single “bodega.” But people come out of the shop with only meager amounts of food.
The goal, said retired teacher Noel Santiesteban, 65, is to have “a guarantee that there will be something on the table, even if it is only a little.”
For several years now, the ration allowance has been getting smaller and smaller: a few eggs, some cooking oil, rice, sugar, beans, bread, chicken and coffee, enough for two weeks at most. Before, the packages were bigger and better quality, and even included a cigarette allowance.
Santiesteban, who is wheelchair-bound, receives a pension equivalent to $12 a month and wants the economy to improve so that one day there will be no need for a ration book. “It will be like an old fiancée leaving: You don’t want her to go, but you are glad she’s no longer around,” he said.
Luis Silva, 39, is one of the most popular comedians in Cuba. His character Panfilo is a prickly, wry pensioner followed by millions of fans. Silva even recorded a skit with then U.S. President Barack Obama when he visited the island last year.
In a recent episode of his show, he sang, “Put the ration book in its tomb, it’s served its purpose,” prompting amusement among the public. “It’s already fading from people’s minds. Of course people still use it, but I don’t think anyone can live off it exclusively anymore.”
“There are some people who simply ignore it. They don’t buy anything with it,” he said, although he said in his house they still take advantage of the allowance.
“It is a pretty obsolete system,” Pavel Vidal said. “A fossil” said Mauricio de Miranda. Both men are Cuban economists now living in Colombia.